SPRINGFIELD — On the same day that a bill allowing college student-athletes to profit from the use of their names and likenesses passed an Illinois House committee, the governing body that oversees most collegiate athletics took steps toward allowing such activity at a national level.
Tuesday’s vote by the NCAA Board of Governors came just hours after state Rep. Emanuel “Chris” Welch, D-Hillside, passed his House Bill 3904 through the House Higher Education Appropriations Committee by a 9-6 vote on partisan lines.
At the committee meeting, Welch said the efforts of California, which passed a similar bill into law earlier this year, Illinois and at least 10 other states helped put pressure on the NCAA.
“Until this happened, they weren’t listening,” Welch said. “Now they will.”
His bill would allow student-athletes to be paid for the use of their names and likenesses and would prohibit the NCAA from punishing the students and the universities they attend. However, it would not allow for universities to pay salaries to the student-athletes.
The NCAA’s governing board directed each of the organization’s three divisions to “immediately consider updates to relevant bylaws and policies for the 21st century” and have them in place by January 2021.
It is not yet clear how or when those changes will be implemented, however.
“We must embrace change to provide the best possible experience for college athletes,” said Ohio State President Michael V. Drake, who chairs the NCAA board. “Additional flexibility in this area can and must continue to support college sports as a part of higher education.
“This modernization for the future is a natural extension of the numerous steps NCAA members have taken in recent years to improve support for student-athletes, including full cost of attendance and guaranteed scholarships.”
The idea had gained support in recent weeks from Big Ten basketball coaches, including Illinois’ Brad Underwood, who said, “I just don’t think you can stay status quo. I think status quo gets you left behind.”
On Monday, Illini football coach Lovie Smith also spoke publicly in favor of athletes being compensated, saying: “I’m in favor for the players getting as much as they possibly can. It’s America, right?”
Back in Springfield on Tuesday, Welch reiterated arguments he made at a news conference a day earlier, saying the bill was about fairness, equity and leveling the recruiting playing field with California after the passage of its law. Both the Illinois bill and the California law would take effect in 2023.
The NCAA board’s action was based on recommendations from a state legislation working group, which will continue to gather feedback through April.
'Today is a victory'
The Illinois committee’s six Republican members voted against Welch’s bill Tuesday amid opposition from a number of athletic directors from universities across the state, including Illinois’ Josh Whitman.
Whitman joined ADs from 10 other state universities in co-signing a letter asking lawmakers to let the NCAA lead on this issue. It was sent before the NCAA stepped in Tuesday.
“We share the sponsors’ interest in supporting the welfare of student-athletes, but we find this bill to be harmful in the short term and, in the end, unnecessary,” the letter stated. It went on to say that the bill “offers no protection from financial exploitation” of student-athletes by sponsors, marketing firms or sports agents.
Welch’s bill allows students to hire agents and requires agents to be registered with the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation.
The athletic directors also encouraged the General Assembly to postpone discussion of the bill until the regular legislative session, which begins next year.
Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker, state Sen. Elgie Sims Jr., D-Chicago, and Welch issued a joint statement on the decision.
“It’s clear that student-athletes deserve to have rights in a billion-dollar industry they helped build. After advocating for our legislation in Illinois, the NCAA took a welcome — though overdue — step forward to allow students to be compensated for their names and likenesses,” they said. “We remain committed to being the voice of student-athletes in Illinois and will monitor this decision to ensure it is fully implemented.
“Today is a victory for student-athletes around the country who are fighting for fairness and equity, and we will continue to fight alongside you.”
Killeen: 'I'm worried'
UI President Tim Killeen was surprised by the NCAA’s action Tuesday. He worries about the ramifications, calling it a complex issue.
“Student-athletes are students first, and we certainly don’t want young people to get diverted from their professional, intellectual advancement,” he said.
“I always worry about unintended consequences. These are 18-year-olds. They’re under a lot of pressure already. Financial inducement can create other kinds of untoward pressures that I would be concerned about,” he said.
But he added, “There seems to be a tide moving in that direction.” He pledged that Illinois will “do it well, if it happens here,” adding that Whitman is “thinking deeply about this.”
Advocates argue that schools are already making money off college sports, and the athletes themselves should have the same opportunity.
Killeen said it could create “different kinds of students on our campuses,” as not every student will have the same endorsement opportunities.
“Is that the path we really want to go down?” he asked. “I’m worried, but we’ll see how this plays out.”
Whitman: 'More of a national solution'
Whitman said he understands why some people are in favor of college athletes getting paid off their own names, images and likenesses.
“There’s the theory of it, and there’s the reality of it,” the UI athletic director said Tuesday evening. “The theory is, ‘Well, of course it makes sense that a student or any person should be able to benefit from the use of their own name, likeness and images.’ That’s a laudable theory and one I think most of us would agree with.
“The challenge that all of us butt up against and try and really hash through this is moving from that theory to an actionable reality is difficult because there are really a number of really complicated questions that have to be answered.”
The NCAA started to try and provide some clarity on the issue Tuesday when its board of governors directed each of the NCAA’s three divisions to create necessary new rules. California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law the Fair Pay to Play Act earlier this month, which sparked similar bills in other states, including Illinois, to allow student-athletes to profit off their names, images and likenesses as early as 2023.
The NCAA has publicly opposed the legislation, and Whitman has taken a similar stance.
“We are supportive of providing additional flexibility,” Whitman said. “What we’re not in favor of is doing it through the state legislative process. We understand that there’s some ground to be covered here in freeing up some name-image-likeness opportunities. It’s really more of a national solution than a state-by-state solution. A national solution is what’s required here, whether that’s through the NCAA or the federal government.”
Even with Tuesday’s developments, Whitman said he doesn’t foresee this debate going away anytime soon.
“It’s an incredibly complicated and nuanced topic and one we’ve been wrestling with for some time.”
Whitman said he has spoken with coaches on the topic, and said opinions are mixed. The UI’s student-athlete leadership group is set to meet next Monday, where the topic will likely come up.
“There is an opportunity here for us to provide additional benefits to our student-athletes, so long as we’re able to do it in a way that protects the collegiate model and allows us to remain competitive on a national stage,” Whitman said. “... I think the NCAA really stepped in at the right moment, and I look forward to being a part of that process as we start to build that out and figure out exactly what it could look like going forward.”